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British Life

Protecting Animals


Richard Martin was an Anglo-Irishman who fought a duel with a man because he had killed a dog. Eventually Martin went to Parliament, where he supported the abolition of slavery and the prevention of cruelty to animals.

The unstoppable
Richard Martin

In Britain and Ireland in the 18th century there were hundreds of thousands of horses - a seemingly endless stream of horses carrying people everywhere they wanted to go. Some people were naturally kind to them. Some were not. There were also dogs, cows, and sheep in their multitudes. Richard Martin was bound and determined to do something about those who were not kind.

Born in Ireland in 1754 to an Anglo-Irish family, Richard Martin went to Harrow School where he took away one great lesson from his master, Samuel Parr. This was that cruelty to animals was “wanton barbarity”. It was a belief Richard's mother shared.

After a stint at Cambridge, Richard entered the Irish House of Commons. By now he was a stocky, energetic man with an uproarious sense of humour who could reduce his political opponents to tears of laughter. Most men learned to shoot then, and Richard had become a good shot.

Defending a dog in a duel

One day a man known as ‘Fighting Fitzgerald' deliberately killed a wolfhound. Richard Martin, who was a friend of both dog and owner, delivered a memorable lesson. He challenged FitzGerald to a duel with pistols. Both men were slightly wounded. Fitzgerald had been taught a lesson he did not forget.

An unhappy marriage, debts, protecting children

Martin didn't think much about the fate of animals for some years. He had married and was raising a family. He was an ebullient and kind man, and, as the duel suggests, a man with a temper. He had been known to comfort a shy girl at a grand function. He stopped his carriage to learn why a child was crying. He protected animals from abuse. His wife, however, did not care for him. She left him and their children in 1791.

In 1794 his father died, and Martin inherited all his debts and 200,000 acres of bog, moorland and mountain in County Galway. He moved to Ballynahinch Castle, Connemara, where he fed the poor, married an author after his first wife died, and continued to push for political reforms with his customary wit and warmth.

Helping to abolish the slave trade

In 1798 the Irish rebellion for independence was thwarted by Britain. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Martin and a hundred Irishmen entered the House of Commons as MPs in 1801. An observer wrote, Martin “lets drive at the House like a bullet”. His arrival and support made a sensational difference to the campaign to abolish slavery, especially William Wilberforce's campaign in the House of Commons.

When most people treat animals callously, it's hard to go against the tide of opinion. Most people don't like to stand out. Most men don't want to make waves. But Martin loved animals, and was determined to protect them from abuse. Parliament, it occurred to him, was the place to start.

Making the case and following through

Martin spent a long time talking individually and persuasively with MPs. Finally on 18 May 1821, when he was 68, he published a bill in Parliament that would make it an offence to ‘wantonly beat, abuse or ill-treat’ any ‘horse, cow, ox, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle’.

The bill was defeated in the Lords, but Martin was “undismayed” (DNB). He had never been one to take defeat lying down.

He reintroduced his bill, pushed it through the Lords with the help of Lord Erskine, and saw it receive Royal Assent on 22 July 1822. It was the first national legislation in the world to penalize cruelty to animals.

Always practical, Martin set about enforcing the act by bringing horse dealers, drovers, and carters who abused animals before magistrates. Quixotically he often paid their fines “out of his own pocket” (DNB).

On 16 June 1824 Martin, Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton, and 19 other reformers met in a London coffee house to establish the organization that would become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). They envisioned a committee that would bring those accused of hurting an animal before the bar of justice.

Golden lab looking up at friend

As Martin had hoped, the law against cruelty to animals eventually included cats and dogs as well as farm animals. By outlawing cruelty and publicly shaming those who were cruel to animals, "Martin’s Act" and the RSPCA helped to transform attitudes about the care and treatment of animals.

Martin didn't enjoy a serene old age. Unwilling to raise rents on his Irish tenants, and unable to pay his inherited debts, he fled to France ahead of his creditors when he was almost 80 years old. He died in 1834 in Boulogne. The last thing he did was to comfort his family and his dog.


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass